When to Use the Article “An”

What is an Article?

An article in English grammar could be “the,” “a,” or “an.” Articles are used to modify a noun — a person, place or thing.

When to Use Articles in General

We use “the” when we are referring to a specific noun, singular or plural. The important part is that it must be a specific noun that we have already referred to or are aware of.

For example “The pen isn’t working.” We are aware of the pen already. It is not a random pen.

“The house is on fire.” We are referring to a specific house.

“The reason why you’re here is that you are studying English.” It’s a specific reason.

“The boys love soccer.” Even plural nouns use the article ‘the’ if we are referring to a specific plural noun, in this case boys.

We use “the” with well-known things or places, such as items in space or places that exist in most cities.

  • The moon, the sun, the earth
  • The Police Station, the Fire Station, The Court House, The Post Office, the mall.

We use “a” or “an” when referring to any member of a group to indicate “one.”

For example, “I want to buy a car.” I want to buy one car, but not any specific model or make.

“A grasshopper is a sign of good luck.” Any grasshopper.

“An owl flew by the window!” It’s not a specific owl.

When to Use An

We use “an,” as in the example above, when the first sound of the noun modified starts with a vowel.

Notice I said SOUND and not letter.

Important: Often teachers tell you that we use “an” before nouns beginning in vowel letters, “a, e, i, o, u.” This is only partially true. 

The truth is that several words that start with one of those vowel letters actually have a different first sound.

We use “an” based on the sound, not the spelling, of a word.

Many nouns begin with the letter “u” but actually begin with the sound “y,” even though they do not begin with the letter “y.”

See a list below of words that do NOT use “an” before them. Instead, use “a” because we consider that these words do NOT begin with a vowel sound, but rather they begin with a Y sound.

Words that Start with Vowels U or E that Sound like Y and do NOT use “an”

Only use “the” or “a” as an article before these nouns

universe
university
unison
unit
unity
unisex 
unique,
union
unify
unicycle
uniform
unicorn
unicameral
unanimous

ubiety (name)
ubiquity
Uclaf (name)
Udale (name)
Udall (name)
Uganda
Ukraine
Uinita (name)
Ukase
Udy (name from Toy Story)
Ueberroth (last name)
Ullyses
udometer
ufo
ukelele, uke
ululate (one variant pronunciation)
upas
ural
uranium
Uranus
urea
ureter
urethra
urine, urology
urus
use
usual
usury
usurp
utensil
uterus
utility
utopia
utricle (tr cluster doesn’t shorten the long u)
uvarovite
uvas creek
uvea
uvula

Europe
Eustace
eunuch
eulogy
eugenics
euphemism
eucalyptus
euphony
eureka
euphoria

one

once

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